Shortly after his big win on Top Chef Masters my sister and I found ourselves at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill for brunch – while some of the food was excellent some of it was merely average and the restaurant seemed entirely overwhelmed by the number of patrons – service was slow, food came out luke warm...and looking back on it I was luke warm on the experience. Having reassessed my thoughts on food and dining on recent trips and ever impressed by Bayless’ strong ethics and dedication to the slow-foods/organic approach I decided to give him a second chance on this visit to Chicago – a lunch at Topolobampo…surely a plethora of Beard Awards and millions of raves couldn’t be wrong twice.
With the amount of praise heaped on Bayless I think may have gone into our previous meal at Frontera with unrealistic expectations, especially since I generally don’t favor Latin/Mexican cuisine – as such I left my expectations at the door this time. Arriving slightly late for our reservation after getting lost on Lower Wacker and subsequently searching for parking we were greeted by the same pleasant hostess I met last time and immediately led through the lively (and jam packed) Frontera to a small table in the much more quiet and refined (but equally packed) Topo. From the moment we sat down the feel was distinctly different from Frontera – music was low, conversation were quiet, servers were present without being overbearing.
Greeted by a pleasant young woman moments after seating we were provided with the ever-rotating monthly menu and offered a wine/cocktail list which we declined. Selecting tap water our heavy (and clearly hand blown) glasses were filled and my aunt additionally ordered a carbonated lime-aid that was quite tasty. As we browsed the menu another server stopped in and presented us with complimentary chips (still hot, thick, salty, and delicious) and a savory onion laden guacamole. While I’m rather certain this was the same guacamole as served at Frontera last year I found it much more delicious this time and even my aunt who doesn’t prefer avocados liked the smooth and balanced flavor.
Orders placed we sat back and chatted until our first courses arrived – a mere 10-15 minutes. For my Aunt’s first course she selected the Ensalada Topolobampo described as a salad of young organic greens with cilantro, garlic croutons and dry Jack cheese, in creamy lime-serrano dressing. Cold, crisp, perfect I was quite impressed by this dish mostly because I generally do not favor the overpowering effect of uncooked cilantro. Graciously accepting a couple of bites from my aunt I was additionally impressed by the smooth manner in which the creamy and acidic lime dressing worked with the sharp jack.
For my first course I was excited to see one of my favorite items – sweetbreads. Described in longwinded fashion as Mollejas a la Yucateca - crispy sweetbreads glazed with orange, achiote and habanero, Mexican chimichurri (infused with cilantro and epazote), roasted Spence Farm turnips, pickled red onion this dish was wonderful in every way. Featuring four large sweetbreads perfectly breaded and pan seared the dish was substantially spicy yet balanced with the sweetness of the orange to allow the characteristic taste of the glands to peak through. The addition of sweetened onions and crispy turnips added additional contrast and a clean vegetal component that balanced the heat and sweet – a very well thought out presentation.
Plates collected we once again waited only a short while before our next courses arrived – not too fast, not too slow – and perfectly warmed, presented, detailed, and explained. For my Aunt she opted for soup to follow her salad and we were both amazed by the aroma as Sopa Azteca featuring dark broth flavored with pasilla, with grilled chicken, avocado, Meadow Valley Farm hand-made Jack cheese, thick cream and crisp tortilla strips was finished table side. Not absurdly overflavored of tomatoes like most tortilla soups this delectable potage was nearly a stew texture with the excellent tortillas holding up to the moisture and heat and prominent notes of spice mellowed by the cheese, cream, and avocado. In addition to the fantastic soup my aunt was brought four excellent whole grain flatbreads for dipping – I fully admit to eating most of them.
For my main course the selection was easy – pork and bread pudding on the same plate couldn’t possibly fail. Entitled Puerco en Clemole and featuring “Roasted pork in old-fashioned clemole castellano (dark dried chiles, pecans, pinenuts, hazelnuts, avocado leaf). Calabaza en tacha (sugar pumpkin) bread pudding and Caramelized Brussels sprouts” my only complaint about this dish was that I couldn’t get the bread pudding as a dessert. Flawless pork loin that was as close to “melt in the mouth” as pork can be paired beautifully with the spicy yet nutty sauce while the sweet and intense bread pudding melded beautifully with the savory sprouts.
Thoroughly impressed by the experience thus far dessert was an easy yes – and so was coffee – and then some. While fully admitting to a borderline unhealthy caffeine addiction I will note I’ve had some great restaurant coffee – Daniel, The Modern, and Gramercy Tavern most notably – and I’d rank the press pot at Topolobampo on par with any of them. Intelligentsia roasted 100% organic beans from Yeni Navan-Michiza, Oaxaca the coffee was flower and honey, cocoa and nutty, smooth yet bold - unreal complexity. Expensive for sure I asked if this blend (bear in mind this is not the same as the house blend) could be purchased and I was told that unfortunately it could not – but I was given the address of the Intelligentsia flagship store so that I could look for something similar.
For dessert I allowed my aunt to select first and she opted for the Chocolate y Datiles – a Gooey steamed Mexican chocolate pudding cake with malted chocolate date ice cream, warm date cake with orange crema, shaved fennel and dates. As complex as it sounds this dish featured two types of cake - both of which were served warm, moist, and sumptuous – topped with a smooth and fruity chocolate ice cream, mildly acidic orange cream, and most wonderfully the fennel that served to enhance the other flavors but also left a glossy vegetal taste on the palate – not since the addition of black olive to a creamsicle at Providence has a vegetable been used so nicely in dessert.
With my aunt selecting my first choice I opted to go the other way and skip chocolate entirely. Presented elegantly the Membrillo con Biscochitos featuring warm brown-butter cake with crumbled shortbread biscochitos, Jamaica-poached quince and brown-butter ice cream was excellent, albeit not quite on par with the Chocolate y Datiles. Somewhere between a soufflé and a pound cake in texture the brown-butter cake was more savory than I expected with elegant notes of salt and caramel folded into its buttery and airy texture. Proving a perfect foil to the savory aspects was intensely sweet poached quince and somewhat bitter but sweetened and smooth ice cream.
Sitting back and enjoying the rest of my coffee I was not only happy but amazed – while I attempted to check my expectations at the door there was clearly some apprehension going into Topo after our experience at Frontera – apprehension that was clearly unwarranted and dissipated after my first taste of the guacamole giving way to excitement and delight with each subsequent dish. While the prices were certainly somewhat more expensive than the casual Frontera I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I now “get” the obsession people have with Bayless and while I may not be a “casual Mexican” kind of guy I truly appreciate his skills with their subset of spices, dishes, and techniques.